Thursday, February 28, 2013


At the Japan Amusement Expo 2013, Sanwa Denshi, renowned manufacturer of fine arcade joysticks and buttons, showed off a prototype stick with a directional pad installed on the top of the ball.


I've long insisted that, despite hardcore gamer claims to the contrary, a good D-pad is an overall superior input mechanism to the joystick for fighting games. The D-pad is small and subtle. With just a twitch of the thumb, you can complete a quarter-circle or half-circle motion in a fraction of a second. It's easy as breathing. With the larger joystick, meanwhile, comes a larger radius, which means a greater distance to travel, which means more work, as you put your entire wrist into those circle motions.

The real advantage to using an arcade stick has, in my opinion, nothing to do with the joystick and everything to do with the buttons. You can divide those big buttons up among all the fingers on your right hand, instead of using mostly just your right thumb to manage four face buttons by itself on a gamepad. In this case, the stick setup is faster and more conducive to simultaneous button presses and stringing together quick multi-button combos than the pad. If only there were controllers that could ergonomically pair together these buttons with a D-pad in place of the joystick, I'd be set.

Alas, this non-working prototype looks like the most ridiculous and completely impractical thing ever.

Source: 4Gamer (via Shoryuken)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mario Kart DS (Nintendo DS) (Nintendo, 2005)


Out of all the franchises that Nintendo can be relied upon to iterate on with each new platform, Mario Kart is, I would say, consistently the least brave, least exciting. The original Super Mario Kart was inspired, birthing an entire new sub-genre (I still don't understand how other companies are able to release mascot-based combat kart-racing games without having to pay Nintendo). I skipped Mario Kart 64 because I didn't have an N64 until after the system's heyday, but, when I eventually gave it a spin later, I found it a rehash, ugly, and really freaking unfair (this was the game that introduced blue shells, largely originating Nintendo's reputation for anti-competitive multiplayer games that cater to the weak rather than rewarding skill). I did play Mario Kart: Super Circuit for the GBA, finding it competent but stale and, in the absence of convenient multiplayer options, incredibly insubstantial. Double Dash!! for the GameCube was cool, although, for whatever reason, I didn't play it much beyond that first weekend I got it (that was how it went for most of the more party-oriented multiplayer games on the system, probably because there were just so many).

I don't know that Mario Kart DS is, on the strength of its core gameplay, a standout necessarily for the series, or even still worthwhile next to the latest 3DS installment (which I haven't played). I do vastly prefer the button-tapping tightness of powersliding with a D-pad versus an analog stick, but that's a personal preference. What made Mario Kart DS great in its time were the new capabilities afforded by the hardware and, for me, also the environment in which I was able to enjoy it.

I think everybody agrees that the strength of the series lies in its multiplayer. It's what made the first game fun, what Mario Kart 64 took advantage of to instantly justify that console's third and fourth controller ports, and why Super Circuit is such the forgotten entry now (because, even in the unlikely case that you could find someone to link GBAs with, the wired connection was slow and cumbersome). Mario Kart DS, however, was able to realize the multiplayer potential of the series like never before. The game did almost nothing with the handheld's dual-screen and touchscreen innovations, but instead it utilized the wireless connectivity of the DS to offer multiplayer gameplay that was easy to set up and did not involve cramped split-screens. Best of all was the number of players it could accommodate: up to a full eight, leaving no bots to spoil the party.

Although Mario Kart DS is often cited as one of the system's most important releases, on account of it being the first to do online right, it was, in my personal experience, fairly difficult to find a match, and even when I did, I would not enjoy getting left in the dust by some silent stranger driving like a weirdo with some "snaking" technique. No, the best way to enjoy the game was with seven other friends in the same room. Admittedly, this is an improbable scenario for most people, but I happened to be working as a game tester when Mario Kart DS came out. When the DS caught on at the workplace, Mario Kart DS was its killer app. It started with one guy using the DS Download Play feature to share his game with another DS owner. Then others, curious, asked to take turns, and, quickly enough, multiple people, myself included, were sold on the system specifically because the Mario Kart DS multiplayer was such a party. Soon, we were having eight-player matches every break, and, let me tell you, anything less now feels like a compromised version of the game. Nothing really compares to a race against seven other human beings, where every change in the standings is accompanied by a real person's live trash talk, and, for every maneuver, there is somebody to take the credit or the blame. Toward every frenzied finish, alliances are struck to unseat a leader, or bargains or petitions are made over when to use the blue shell or lightning bolt, before finally it all blows up and becomes every man for himself again.

Even Nintendo's "rubber banding" becomes forgivable when the bots are removed. After a few rounds, you kind of figure out who the better racers are, regardless of the blue shell-tainted results, and you come to accept those blue shells as just a way to keep the weaker players involved and happy. And you can never be as mad at a pitifully lousy human player as you would be if it were an AI cheating you out of your victory.

* * *

Sometimes, there would even be a mysterious ninth player trying to get in on our game—somebody who was not any of the people in the room, but who was somehow aware of our game and thinking to join uninvited. We would notice, of course, and laugh as we excluded him. Or if he somehow managed to join before one of us, the host would simply close and reopen the room, so that we could knowingly exclude and laugh at the mysterious stranger.

"Oh, I actually know who that is," one of our group mentioned once.

"Psh, we all know who it is," said the host.

I didn't know but was quickly informed that it was the office's resident douche bag (as if there were only one)—a straight edge born-again Christian nerd, who was apparently a stereotypically obnoxious example of each descriptor. In truth, to the extent that I knew him, I did not find his reputation entirely deserved. Although lacking a certain self-awareness, he was generally a pretty normal, cool guy, provided you kept him off certain trigger topics. But he was inescapably defined by a few infamous outbursts from before my time there, and, thereafter, even people who had never interacted with him knew him as "the resident douche bag" and would treat him so behind his back.

Teamed together with him one time on a later project, I found him playing Mario Kart DS during a break. The old Mario Kart DS group had, by this time, been broken up by the high turnover at that job, and I myself had tired of the game. A few people were still playing it during breaks together, but that was in another room. Where we were, the douche bag was the only one playing DS.

"Playing online?" I asked.

"No, by myself." Then, thinking to explain to me the workings of Mario Kart DS multiplayer at the workplace, he added, "There is a game in the building, but you gotta be quick to get in on it."

It really seemed that he was unaware that this "game in the building" was a private game among a specific group of people. I wondered, did he think he had somehow stumbled upon some mysterious game room that was just magically manifesting every break period for the first eight people who could fill it? Had it never occurred to him to try to seek out the source of the game and maybe just introduce himself and ask to join in person? Or if he was intending to play with strangers anyway, why didn't he just go online? These were all reasonable questions, but asking any of them would have required that I risk pointing him in the direction of the roomful of people laughing at him, and I didn't have the heart to do that.

Hrm, thinking about it now, it seems I easily could have busted out my own DS and offered to play with him, instead of deliberating over whether to laugh at or feel sorry for him. But, honestly, the thought never crossed my mind.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Maksim Chmerkovskiy too famous now for Dancing with the Stars

The cast list for the upcoming 16th season of Dancing with the Stars has been revealed, and, for those who are into that, a bigger surprise than any of the celebrity contestants announced may be who is conspicuously absent: professional Maksim Chmerkovskiy.

In an official statement, he implies that he's moving on to bigger things, having exhausted what he can achieve through the ballroom dance competition show:
I just want to set the record straight to all of my amazing fans that I will unfortunately not be returning for this season of Dancing with the Stars. I’ve been a pro dancer on the show for about seven years now and am eager to explore other opportunities that have been made possible because of Dancing with the Stars. I'm going to take this time to dive into producing and acting, while fulfilling my sponsorship obligations.

Anecdotally, the other day, I was listening to some older ladies discussing celebrity gossip, and one of them said, without any more specific context, "I heard Derek was dating that one girl. What's her name?"

The response from another lady: "Who's Derek?"

"Julianne Hough's brother!" the first lady answered, as though it had been understood by everyone else.

I hadn't realized Derek Hough was now a mononymous entity. I actually thought maybe she had been referring to an acquaintance named Derek. Silly me.

But it made me pause and consider that, to certain segments of television-viewing America, the recurring professional dancers on Dancing with the Stars are, by now, probably more recognizable than their celebrity partners. In fact, I don't think I even need to qualify it; I'd say the more successful dancers are objectively more famous than the average celebrity contestant. I mean, for such "stars" as Kelly Monaco, Drew Lachey, Gilles Marini, or Melissa Rycroft, getting to be on Dancing with the Stars certainly must have been a bigger deal than whatever they came from; most viewers had probably never heard of any of these people previously. Meanwhile, professionals like Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Derek Hough have gotten to be on multiple seasons of one of the biggest shows on television. So these guys are probably justified in thinking that they should have the star power and name recognition now to go at least as far in showbiz as the no-name actors they meet on Dancing with the Stars. Case in point: Julianne Hough is a bigger star in movies and music now than probably a good half of the contestants in the show's history ever were.

That said, I wouldn't honestly expect Maksim Chmerkovskiy to make it as an actor. I'd wager that, if we ever hear from him again, it will be upon his return to Dancing with the Stars.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Parks and Recreation (Season 3)

I'm still enjoying Parks and Recreation, although I felt the show's momentum stalled somewhat with the third season, as the show covered less actual parks and rec business and focused much more on character relationships.

I found the two new additions to the cast to be a mixed bag. Rob Lowe's portrayal of incessantly upbeat acting city manager Chris Traeger is, in some ways, inspired–an original and unexpected performance by a historically fairly bland name actor. But it was clearly conceived for a guest role (as Lowe's was at the end of season 2). Although the character's exaggerated exuberance is consistently worth a chuckle, it's also highly one-dimensional, and it's impossible to take him or any of his story threads seriously.

Assistant city manager Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) is, conceptually, a more intriguing addition. Watching the first two seasons of Parks and Rec, and seeing Leslie Knope overcoming bureaucratic obstacles and opposition through her infectious optimism and tireless enthusiasm, you almost feel inspired, amid this climate of disillusionment with our government leaders, to go into politics and get the job done yourself. The addition of the Ben character, however, brings viewers back to reality. First, he was originally introduced, along with Chris, as a state auditor–a compellingly topical reflection of the budget problems that are now crippling our real-world governments, and also a reminder that social services come with a cost. Second, his backstory as formerly an 18-year-old mayor, who was elected into office by "anti-establishment voter rebellion," then impeached after a disastrous two months, is a cautionary tale to warn that, actually, it takes a great deal of work and know-how to govern effectively. And I also love that he's a geek who's not a fan of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies.

Unfortunately, in practice, instead of actively balancing out the potentially hazardous side to Leslie's idealism, Ben seems to spend most of season 3 fawning over her. What I loved about the Leslie-Mark dynamic in the first two seasons was that, even when Leslie would inspire the burned-out and jaded Mark to lend a hand toward her wildly unrealistic park project, it was not that her optimism was dazzling him to the point of intoxication. In fact, I thought it was pretty clear that he never had a lot of confidence in her dream, not even as he was going out of his way to support her, which he did, not to get anything in return, not as any kind of investment toward the betterment of the world, and certainly not to join the winning side, but just because he liked and appreciated her as a person. To me, there was something very pure about that. In season 3, Leslie mostly just overpowers Ben and brings him into line with her way of thinking.

The biggest problem with season 3, however, is how it struggles to find a direction for the Ann Perkins character. She's not a wacky personality like the others, and she can't really generate comedy on her own in the way that Ron and Tom can. With Mark gone, the park project set aside, and the Leslie-Ben romance clearly positioned as the lead plot for season 3, Ann regrettably becomes relegated to a character limbo of not having anything to do on this show. Her romance with Chris is, as mentioned, impossible to take seriously, and the subsequent downward spiral of her love life comes across as a really halfhearted attempt to give her her own shtick as some kind of pathetic loser at love. This is unfortunate because I feel it's a waste of a character that actually fills a pretty important role in tethering this increasingly zany show to those of us in the audience. She began the series as the viewers' surrogate into the circus of the bureaucratic world, and I've also always felt that her friendship with Leslie should be one of the more important relationships on the show, as the two make for a genuinely delightful duo like none other on television.

Still, episode-to-episode, Parks and Recreation remains a funny show three seasons in. Without an overarching project this time, there wasn't quite as satisfying a build to the season arc, but it does close with some major developments. I'm looking forward to season 4 and getting all caught up.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

I want to see Daniel Day-Lewis in Star Wars

Months ago, I was listening in on a conversation about upcoming movies, and this one lady mentioned she was looking forward to Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. She was a lover of Spielberg and of Lincoln, but she was especially stoked to see multiple Academy Award-winner Daniel Day-Lewis, her favorite actor.

"I could watch that man read the phonebook," she said.

I knew she didn't mean it literally, but I felt it was an incredibly stupid thing to say. First of all, reading the phonebook is not acting, so a trained actor would not be necessarily more qualified to do a good job of it than anyone else. If what you're really wanting is a pleasing voice to listen to, then I could think of plenty of male celebrities that I would pick before Daniel Day-Lewis ever crossed my mind. Or if you just mean that a great actor should be able to take even the most banal material and make it compelling, then, again, Daniel Day-Lewis would not be my first choice. I actually think the man would be quite at a loss to make the phonebook interesting, the occasionally hilarious ethnic name notwithstanding.

Recognized as a method actor, and also known to be extremely selective in the roles he takes on, he's lauded for his devotion to researching and essentially becoming the men he plays. For The Last of the Mohicans, he was reported to have learned how to camp in the forest and hunt his own food.  As a result, his work is praised for its often startling authenticity. But what if he were given work for which there were no standard for authenticity? What if the method actor were tasked with a role for which he couldn't do any hands-on research? I mean, honestly, could you even imagine how Daniel Day-Lewis would cope with being cast in a Star Wars? He would never do it, of course, probably because he knows, better than some of his fans, that he actually can't just act anything and make it gold.

When I think of actors who elevate their material–the most consummate professionals devoted to doing the job, no matter how ignominious, and doing it with the utmost class and pride–I tend to think of classically trained actors like Ben Kingsley, Alan Rickman, maybe Liam Neeson or Ralph Fiennes. And, in the moment of my reacting to this overheard conversation, the first actor that sprang to mind as being, in my opinion, preferable to Daniel Day-Lewis was none other than Ian McDiarmid (AKA Emperor/Senator/Chancellor Palpatine, AKA Darth Sidious, AKA the secret best part of the Star Wars prequels).

(In all seriousness, Daniel Day-Lewis probably has classical training too and could do a bang-up job of reading the phonebook. But Ian McDiarmid really is awesome as well, "unlimited power" notwithstanding. And don't even ask me where Christian Bale fits in this breakdown.)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Beck Says "Hello, Again" to David Bowie's "Sound and Vision" (Presented by the Lincoln Motor Company)

As part of its "Hello, Again" campaign to reintroduce its Lincoln brand, Ford commissioned Beck to cover David Bowie's "Sound and Vision" (from Bowie's 1977 album Low):

Hello, Again

For the live concert, director Chris Milk utilized three rotating circular platforms, with Beck on the center stage, the audience on the middle ring, and an eclectic mix of 170+ musicians playing on the periphery. The performance was captured with 360-degree cameras and 360-degree binaural microphones (whatever those are). The "fully immersive" (and incredibly resource-intensive) experience offers multiple camera views and even involves the use of your webcam (if you have one) to dynamically direct the viewing angle by tracking your face.

It's certainly epic, but I personally don't care to "interact" with the presentation by clicking around constantly to check out different angles. For a more passive viewing experience (and to skip past most of the corporate branding), you can just check out the YouTube video:

So is this cool—Beck unironically covering a David Bowie song for the Lincoln Motor Company? Or is this extravagance everything wrong with America's flagging domestic automotive industry? Or maybe it's both? Personally, I think the cover itself is a pretty neat, inventive reinterpretation. I don't think you can really accuse Beck of lowering himself by his involvement in this. If his integrity wasn't already compromised by his contributing to the Twilight movie soundtracks (nor, heck, by the Scientology associations that have accompanied him his entire life), then this certainly won't ruin his cool. And, from a car company, it's about as classy an ad campaign as one could hope for (much better, at least, than Lincoln's MKZ commercials that unaccountably include a shadowy Abraham Lincoln figure spying upon the 2013 luxury car).

* * *

Coincidentally, as a bonus, here's an amazing photo posted by Milla Jovovich to her Facebook page, easily the winner for the week's "Best of the Internet":

Milla "at some concert with Beck"

Friday, February 22, 2013

Chromebook Pixel - For Whom?

"$1299?! Are you serious?"

That was my first reaction on hearing the news about Google's newly announced Chromebook Pixel. $1299. Yikes. And that's just for the Wi-Fi-only version. The LTE-enabled setup will cost $1449 (and come with only a measly 100 MB/month of data free for 2 years). That's approaching the same territory as lower-end models of the MacBook Pro with Retina. Going by the Pixel's specs, that might almost sound competitively priced. This is premium hardware–not as powerful as a MacBook Pro, more in line with a MacBook Air, but with some distinguishing killer features–its most notable asset being the 12.85-inch screen with "the highest pixel density of any laptop," beating out Apple's Retina display. That screen is also touch-capable, borrowing the one trailblazing feature of the latest Windows 8 PCs.

Still, however fancy the packaging, this is still a Chromebook, running Google's cloud-based Chrome OS–essentially just a web browser. When I saw the $250 price tag for Samsung's MacBook Air-esque Chromebook last year, I was genuinely intrigued. After all, I had just recently paid $1099 for a MacBook Air, after having had to live without a laptop for over a year, my last HP PC having quit on me rather suddenly. After a few months with the MacBook Air, I realized that all I ever really used it for was word processing and getting online. Once online, all I did was browse the Internet and do email. The most resource-intensive activity I performed was probably watching YouTube videos. I didn't play games, download media, or run any kind of photo-editing software. Even my word processing was done on Google Docs. In other words, I already lived most of my life on the cloud, and almost everything I needed a laptop for could be done with just a web browser. So, yeah, seeing that Chromebook going for less than a quarter of what I had paid for the MacBook Air, I was starting to feel some buyer's remorse. Maybe a Chromebook would have been a better fit for me.

But $1299?! The advantages of the MacBook Air over the $250 Chromebook may not entirely justify the much heftier cost, but at least I know that I paid more to get more. The Chromebook Pixel, on the other hand, is still a Chromebook and, by its nature, a more limited machine than a Mac or PC. And that fancy display and that touch functionality? Those are nice marketing points, but the reality is that most of the Web right now isn't even ready to take advantage of them, and, by the time it is, the Pixel won't be a cutting-edge device. So what exactly is the point of paying $1299 minimum for a web browser that won't, in practical use, browse much better than any other comparably priced fully capable laptop?

I get the sense that Google made this thing for no other reason than to show the world that it could. Perhaps it is a herald of "what's next," either for laptop technology or for Google's position in the industry. Google's product page does explicitly state that the Pixel exists "to inspire future innovation." Don't know what good that does consumers right now.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

The Fountain Movie Poster

I remember, upon seeing the original commercials for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, being intrigued at what looked like a visionary romantic fantasy, perhaps not altogether unlike the "quest for the Grail" section of John Boorman's 1981 Excalibur. Now, finally watching The Fountain some seven years later, although the Excalibur comparisons linger, I find it quite a different film than what I imagined.

As it turns out, the images that caught my eye from the commercials, featuring Hugh Jackman as a Spanish conquistador questing for the tree of life, represented only one of three interwoven storylines in the film. There's also the narrative of Jackman as a future spacefaring monk, his destination the nebula of Xibalba, held in some Mayan traditions as the road to the underworld. These plots are secondary and tertiary, however, to the story of Jackman as a 21st-century scientist working furiously to cure his wife's brain tumor. And it all opens with a verse from the Book of Genesis about the fall of man, when God cut off Adam and Eve from the tree of life, thereby consigning humankind to mortality.

Ostensibly, the present-day storyline is reality within the film's overall narrative, while the other two plots are depictions of a story that Jackman's wife (Rachel Weisz) has been writing, which she leaves up to him to finish. Truthfully, it doesn't matter a great deal whether any of the stories are "real." The less-than-credible medical research that Jackman's doctor character conducts is treated only in broad strokes, as is his entire world, drenched in mood and painted in the same haunting, claustrophobic tones as the other two tales, which it liberally transitions into and back from in nonlinear fashion. What unites these three dreams within a dream thematically is the universal struggle to come to terms with death as an inescapable reality of the human condition.

I can scarcely imagine what it must have been like to try to cut a trailer or TV spot for this movie. How do you telescope this lyrical thousand-year love story into 2 minutes and 30 seconds? Or what clip of out-of-context wooden dialogue would you pick out to speak for and sell it as something powerful? On the other hand, the entire movie actually feels kind of like a 96-minute trailer, so maybe any random selection of clips would reasonably represent the experience of the film as a whole.

As thematically rich and visually virtuosic as it is, The Fountain is not an overly challenging film to comprehend. What it has to say, ultimately, is what it presents right there on its surface. You can unpack the words and images to provide support for the message without ever arriving at any deeper truth than what you would have begun with, which is not to say that the simple truth is not profound. But it is not some highly intellectual, philosophical treatise that the film argues. In this movie about what it means to be human and mortal, the emotions of grief, desperation, and especially love are keenly felt, and, to the extent that that emotional resonance is what Aronofsky was aiming for, The Fountain should be regarded as a triumph.

Trying to describe the movie only makes it sound more complicated than it is. But I actually get this, far more so than I get, say, neuroscience. (I still sometimes get mistaken for an intellectual, but it's not lost on me that my friends with science backgrounds are the ones courteously lowering themselves to my level, because they know I would never be able to follow along in talking about their passions.) There's a moment late in the film, when Hugh Jackman's character is confronted with grief and despair that would topple almost any man, and his friends try to comfort him. At that moment, before the words could leave his lips, I knew what he was going to say. I knew because it's what I would have felt.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nintendo DS (2004 - 2012)

Well, the PS4 has been unveiled, and the last few major PS3 and Xbox 360 titles are due for release before the end of the year, effectively signaling the close of perhaps the most drawn-out generation of video game consoles. The generation arguably began in 2004 with the release of the Nintendo DS handheld, whose last games of consequence, Pokemon Black Version 2 and White Version 2, came out last year.

Perhaps somewhat fittingly (but mostly frustratingly), my black DS Lite finally failed me as I was in the middle of my Pokemon Black Version 2 playthrough. The bottom screen succumbed to the jitters, which would be intolerable even on a normal screen, but, as the bottom screen is the touchscreen, the encumbrance is even greater, as it would impair my ability to helm the controls of a number of games (admittedly, not Pokemon so much). Finally, late last year, I went ahead and bought a 3DS XL, despite my disappointment at its lack of a second analog stick, and despite there being no 3DS games I was interested in.

As I retire my DS Lite at last, I reflect now on how really significant a part of my life it represented over these last several years. When I bought it back in 2006 from Circuit City (remember them?), it was actually the first major purchase I had made with my own money earned from my first real job. (If you know how old I am and are now doing the math, please don't ask what I was doing with my adult life prior to 2006.) It feels so long ago now, even if, in fact, my life has not changed so very much since then. I have (long) since left that job, and the one after. And, toward the end of that period, my gaming habit definitely slowed considerably. I mean, I originally landed that job, a game testing gig, by telling my interviewer that I played about 30 hours of games per week (perhaps an exaggeration). Now I go weeks at a time without touching a video game.

So some things have changed, not necessarily for better or worse. Good times, in any case, and good games. Indeed, I've decided, over the next few weeks, I'll be looking back on and highlighting some of my favorite DS games, as my way of fondly saluting the system as I lay it to rest. See you in about a week with my first entry.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Four-Day Workweek

Refreshed after that three-day weekend, I reported to work Tuesday morning feeling, for once in my life, ready to take on the workweek. Truly, I believe future civilizations will look back upon this age and conclude, "Truly, the five-day workweek was one of humankind's great missteps. God rest their pink-skin souls."

Monday, February 18, 2013

Parks and Recreation (Season 2)

Ron Swanson: Leslie, why don't you take the rest of the day off. I mean, you spend so much time worrying about this park, but, really, who cares?

Leslie Knope: I care. I care a lot. It's kind of my thing, remember?

– Parks and Recreation Season 2, Episode 8 "Ron and Tammy"

The second season of Parks and Recreation maintained the stellar quality of the first, its comedy becoming sharper as the writers and actors got a better sense of the characters. Admittedly, with the breathing room afforded by its more typical season length of 24 episodes (four times the length of the first season), it did feel slightly like a more conventional American show, with more sidetracks and episodes based around stunt casting.

I love how this show manages to be more realistic and relevant than The Office (U.S.), while, at the same time, never treating its melodramatic elements as seriously as The Office did. Pam and Jim aside, everybody on The Office was always such a shallow and repulsive caricature that I was never quite convinced that they could actually have real human feelings. It could be funny to watch them squirm and make fools of themselves, but there was no possibility of my becoming emotionally invested in their story arcs (such as they had). The characters of Parks and Rec are, well, also mostly cartoons, but, through the first two seasons at least, the show doesn't presume to claim a bigger emotional investment than it earns. When the habitually flirtatious Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) falls sincerely for a woman he is utterly unworthy of, viewers are given less than an episode to root for their happy ending, before being reminded of how he is utterly unworthy of her–a refreshingly sober outcome that is truer-to-life and consequently more rewarding than any of the later Office romances.

Meanwhile, Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), one of the two normal people on the show (along with Ann (Rashida Jones)), was, for the first season, really quite an unusually challenging character for an American sitcom to deal with, because he came across, by most real-life standards, as generally a good guy, but, within the show's narrative, he was not one of the white hats. It was left ambiguous how exactly viewers were supposed to feel about him–another refreshing difference from other shows, where we're often more or less simply told that we're supposed to like certain characters. I actually loved his character and found his arc, as resolved at the end of season 2, to be the most fulfilling I'd seen on a TV show in a long while.

The one minor irritation of season 2 was its overuse of special guest stars, with Will Arnett and Andy Samberg being the worst offenders. They actually gave pretty funny performances, but the roles themselves felt unnecessary, existing for no other reason than to showcase these particular actors' very loud personalities and dominating styles of comedy. As one-off characters, they didn't seem worth the distraction on a show that was strong enough without them.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

When is Presidents' Day?

Presidents' Day is observed every year in the United States on the third Monday of February.

As a federal holiday, its official legal name remains "Washington's Birthday." George Washington's actual birthday is February 22 (or February 11, if going by the Julian calendar that was in use in the colonies at the time of his birth). It was established as a federal holiday in 1885. Then, by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which was designed to create more three-day weekends, observance of the holiday was moved to the third Monday of February (which never actually coincides with either of Washington's birthdays).

Presidents' Day later arose as an idea to honor all past presidents of the United States (but probably especially Abraham Lincoln, who also happened to be born in February), and it has since become a commonly used name for the the observance of Washington's birthday. In many states, including California, where Lincoln's birthday was formerly a legal holiday, the state holiday on the third Monday of February is referred to even in official channels as "Presidents' Day" (although, interestingly, the California Government Code does not seem to name the holiday at all). Most likely, this was done in order to sadden public school students by consolidating what used to be two days off into a single joint holiday.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Heartthrob by Tegan and Sara

New Tegan and Sara album is hot. Top 40 production meets indie earnestness, with an irresistibly 80s synthpop twist. I know the year is young yet, but I'm preeeeetty sure this will be my 2013 album of the year.

I'd also just like to say that this slickly edited medley video is an incredibly awesome idea. Way better than checking out samples on Amazon.* It probably helps that Heartthrob has a very unified (uniform?) sound, and every track is seriously strong enough to be a single, so it all flows together like silk.

* By the way, order the CD on Amazon (via my affiliate link, if you like), and they'll also instantly give you the AutoRip MP3 version that includes two bonus tracks (not the music video, though), all for about $3 less than buying the actual MP3 deluxe version.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reeva Steenkamp (August 19, 1983 - February 14, 2013)

Reeva Steenkamp was born August 19, 1983 in Cape Town, South Africa to parents Barry and June. Her family moved to Port Elizabeth when she was a child.

A tomboy growing up, Steenkamp owned only one Barbie—the one with the horse—and preferred to play with Lego men. She used to ride horses herself, until she injured her back off a fall.

She had been modeling since she was 14, and, in 2005, she was a finalist in the Port Elizabeth Herald's "Miss Port Elizabeth" competition. That same year, she graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. After winning a contract as the first "Face of Avon Cosmetics" in South Africa, she packed a single suitcase and moved to Johannesburg to further pursue her modeling career, although she would continue to regard Port Elizabeth, where her parents lived, as her home. "PE will always be my home, though, and I visit the folks as often as I can. Nothing like good old PE to ground you!" (FHM Collections, Autumn/Winter 2011)

She also maintained plans to finish her master's degree and one day become an advocate. Speaking to FHM (December 2011), Steenkamp explained, "I'm passionate about standing up in defence of those who do not realise their own rights."

In the meantime, in addition to her modeling and TV presenting duties, Steenkamp had an export company that shipped fresh produce to such places as Mauritius and Saudi Arabia.

More recently, she had participated as a contestant on Tropika Island of Treasure, a South African reality TV game show filmed in Jamaica.

Steenkamp was active on Twitter, where she described herself as "SA Model, Cover Girl, Tropika Island of Treasure Celeb Contestant, Law Graduate, Child of God." She frequently interacted with followers and also used her account to encourage people to stand up and speak out against rape and sexual abuse.

According to an interview with ZAlebs, Steenkamp was scheduled to be at Sandown High in Johannesburg on Valentine's Day to give a motivational speech to students about loving and valuing themselves. “I’ve realised that although Valentine’s Day can be a cheesy money-making stint to most people, it’s a day of expressing love across the world. It doesn't have to only be between lovers, but by telling a friend that you care, or even an old person that they are still appreciated.”

Reeva Steenkamp had a passion for cars and cooking, and preferred to read a book on her off days and spend quality time with friends and family.

Taking Back Valentine's Day, Part 2

Yesterday, I blogged a post about "Taking Back Valentine’s Day." I actually wrote it on Wednesday, and it was supposed to go up on Thursday morning, but, of course, I wouldn't have been able to take the picture until after arriving at work, and so the post ended up getting bumped into irrelevance to the day after Valentine's Day. At any rate, it was not meant to be taken seriously. That idea of "taking back Valentine's Day" was merely a playful twist on my sincere philosophy that, although you may not always get what you want out of life for reasons that are out of your control, you can still take back control of the narrative of your life in how you respond. For example, maybe you're one of those people that hates Valentine's Day because it's a reminder that you don't have someone special in your life. Well, you can spend the day sulking about it, or you can own it by placing a positive spin on it. I bought some cheap flowers and chocolates for the workplace as my way of having a little fun with the day.

That morning did start out well. The ladies at work, having no idea who the flowers were from, had their own fun with them, divvying them up to wear on their heads. I was pleased that my small, whimsical gesture had helped to ever so slightly brighten someone else's day.

Then, about halfway into my workday, I heard the horrible news that Reeva Steenkamp had been murdered by her boyfriend. Suddenly, "taking back Valentine's Day" took on a whole different meaning. What response could I possibly offer now to make this not an awful day? It would take more than a small, whimsical gesture. Did I have any extraordinary whimsical gestures in me? I actually looked into hiring a skywriter to write a message dedicated to Steenkamp and to other victims of violence against women. But I couldn't think of anything proper to say, and, anyway, daylight would have been gone by the time I'd worked out the logistics. And, even if I'd had the words, the time, and the thousands of dollars to pull it off, such a stunt wouldn't have done anything to actually make things right (and might even have been distracting in a way that would have made things worse). Unless I could raise the dead or turn back time, this day was not within my power to fix.

And so I went home saddened at what I considered the worst Valentine's Day in memory. Emotionally, I still felt like doing something, but I ultimately convinced myself that I had best leave it alone. After all, this was not a day for or about me. It would be a day to grieve for Reeva Steenkamp, and, for the lovers out there who maybe hadn't even heard the news, it was still a day to celebrate romance—no need for me to spoil it.

Even so, for the rest of the day and the day after, I couldn't stop thinking about Reeva Steenkamp. Sadness at the life cut short. Outrage at the scumbag responsible. Disillusionment with life and humanity in general. And still there was nothing really I could do except continue to follow the updates. But, after a while, I didn't want to read any more stories distastefully eulogizing the famous suspect instead of the victim. And so I tried to find out as much as I could about Steenkamp herself, whom I had admittedly never even heard of prior to hearing that she had died.

Reading about her life was, again, sad, given the circumstances. But it also put things in perspective. Perhaps even more so than sadness, my initial feeling on hearing the news had been anger at the crime. And, yes, I still think anger is called for. But, in my call for justice, I had been guilty of much the same offense as the sensational news outlets reporting, focusing too much on the killer, when, really, the victim should always come first. Otherwise, justice is not even meaningful. And, as I came to know the life of Steenkamp better through bits and pieces found on the Internet, although the sadness remained, the disillusionment subsided, and I remembered again why I would ever do so silly a thing as buy Valentine's chocolates for coworkers I barely know. It dawned on me that death is only so sorrowful because life, in the first place, is such a mysteriously and profoundly beautiful thing. And, not to mythologize anyone, but Reeva Steenkamp's was one to be celebrated—a narrative defined far more by her dreams and accomplishments, by her character, and by the love she felt, and showed, than by any terrible thing that merely happened to her.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Taking Back Valentine's Day

Hey, I get that, for those not in a relationship, Valentine's Day can actually be kind of a bummer—watching those flowers and gifts delivered to others at the office, hearing about their romantic dinner plans, basically having it rubbed in your face all day how happy and in love other people are, while you sit alone with a frozen dinner waiting at home and an all-new episode of Grey's Anatomy lined up as the highlight of your night. That's why, in this Valentine's Day-themed edition of "Owning It," I decided to go out and buy some flowers, chocolates, and even a card to share with everyone at my workplace. Because why should only those in relationships get to celebrate this one occasion out of the year of guys blowing their hard-earned dough on grand romantic gestures that they'll then have to try to outdo year after year?

Valentine's Day 2013

* * *

And thus did I take back Valentine's Day!



Did you say "take back Valentine's Day"? What does that mean? Take it back from whom?

Nothing. Nobody. Never mind.

* * *

How very sweet of you, Henry!

I agree.

But what's with this card? It looks like there was a name written on it that you then scribbled out—

We're done here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hugh Jackman gay? "It's big. It's everywhere."

From The Hollywood Reporter ("You Don't Know Jackman," February 22, 2013):
Jackman admits rumors about his sexuality have taken a greater toll than previously acknowledged, especially on his wife. "Just recently, it bugs her," he says, blaming the Internet, which she frequents more than he does. (Jackman largely sticks to cricket sites and The Economist.) "She goes: 'It's big. It's everywhere!'"

His X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner shrugs off the gossip. "I have seen him with Deborra since the beginning of their trip to Hollywood, and I've been on five movie sets with him and have never seen him stray, have never seen him eye anyone. I met him when he did Oklahoma! [at London's Royal National Theatre in 1999]. He was genuine, hugely talented. He was in love with his wife that day and still is."

"Gay? I wish! If I were gay, there'd be no problem! No, what I have is a romantic abnormality. One so unbelievable that it must be hidden from the public at all costs."

- Troy McClure, The Simpsons ("A Fish Called Selma")

(*sigh* I miss you, Phil Hartman.)

Seriously, Hugh Jackman is my favorite actor in movies right now. That's not an especially strong statement; it's not as if I keep a list, and I don't go out and see every new movie he's in. But I've enjoyed his performances in everything I've seen, and I always find him an extremely likable, down-to-earth (I mean, for a guy who technically makes his living by pretending to be other people) personality in interviews and other "real-life" appearances. This Hollywood Reporter feature is no different, although his life story is not without twists and eccentricities (like, for example, that he was active in the church into his late teens but no longer prays, that he now meditates daily instead, that his mother walked out when he was 8, that he married a much older woman, that his kids are adopted).

He was never a "serious" actor like Russell Crowe or Christian Bale, but there's something to be said for a guy who can go back and forth between headlining opposite those noted thespians and doing Wolverine movies and Real Steel (awesome, by the way!). Singer, dancer, People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive," the greatest awards show host this century has seen so far—that's some versatility. And, as much as I didn't care for Bryan Singer's X-Men movies, I think the one great thing that emerged out of them was the casting of Jackman as Wolverine. Sure, maybe one day there will be another actor to play the role, and maybe that guy will turn in the definitive live-action Wolverine performance. (I mean, I used to think Jack Nicholson as the Joker was pretty great, but now I watch that movie and think it's, well, kind of a joke.) But, for now, Hugh Jackman is my definitive Wolverine. I enjoy him in the role far more than I ever liked the character in the comics, and I am grateful that he is still not too proud to keep reprising the role for going on six films.

And I'd honestly never heard the gay rumors before. Guess I don't frequent the Internet enough.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reuniting with loved ones in dreams

I overheard two old ladies discussing a dream one of them had.

"Last night, I had a dream about my ma," the first lady said. "She was giving me advice, just like when I was a kid. It was so real. That was the first time I dream about her in a long time."

"Maybe she's trying to reach you," the second lady said. "You should pray to her."

I had gathered that the first lady's mother had passed away quite a while ago. The idea that the dead woman might have been trying to reach beyond the grave to continue maternally looking after her daughter—now herself a grandmother—was, in a way, sweet, but I couldn't buy into it, and not because of any beliefs I may or may not hold with regard to an afterlife, persisting animus, ghosts, etc. No, it's because I have, on occasion, had dreams involving living people that I haven't seen or thought of in a long time, and the dreams feel very real, but I KNOW those people aren't reaching out to me. It is only the nearness of dreams to memories in our minds that has the two intermingling. Sometimes a dream is just a dream, however real it may seem, however much we may want it to mean something more.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Do I have to work on Lincoln's birthday? (Or "Abraham Lincoln the Brontosaurus")

Today, February 12, is Abraham Lincoln's birthday. He was born in 1809, making this the 204th anniversary of his birth.

Lincoln's birthday has never been a federal holiday, although it has been observed in some states, including California. When I was a kid attending public elementary school here, we would get a day off in observance, sometimes along with George Washington's birthday as part of the same four-day weekend. By the time I was in high school, we no longer got Lincoln's birthday off, but Washington's birthday, as "Presidents' Day," honored both men and was observed on the third Monday of February (so, February 18 this year). I don't believe this loss of a day off was a state-mandated change, and it certainly wasn't federal. (In fact, did you know that the federal government actually doesn't have the power to compel anyone but federal offices to close in observance of holidays? In other words, there are no mandated national days off in the U.S.) As far as schools go, I think it's mostly at their own discretion whether they observe Lincoln's birthday. Some other public services are closed today. The post office remains open. If you work anywhere else, you're probably already at your job and not reading this. You'll more than likely get next Monday off, though, or else be offered overtime pay, provided you don't work at some startup or other ghetto place that can't afford to take holidays. So look forward to that.

* * *

This past weekend, 60 Minutes ran a feature on Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln.

Among other things, they discussed the impressive amount of research Daniel Day-Lewis did in preparation for his performance, which has been hailed as "eerily authentic." Interviews with the actor and with Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (whose book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, was partly the basis for the film) specifically noted the choice to act with a high-pitched voice, which was both unlike Day-Lewis's normal speaking voice and also a departure from the Gregory Peck baritone that many people have come to associate with the 16th and greatest President of the United States.

Historians do seem to agree that Lincoln spoke with a higher-pitched voice, while also noting that he died 12 years before Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph, therefore leaving us with no audio recordings. To me, that makes it rather impossible to assess the accuracy of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance. Saying merely that Lincoln's voice was high-pitched is too imprecise. Was it a Steven Tyler-esque tenor or a shrill David Beckham squeak? (Pitch aside, Lincoln probably didn't sound at all like either of those guys.) Since nobody living today ever heard the man speak, nobody can really say how close Day-Lewis gets.

In general, I don't personally place too much trust in history or historical method. As far as I'm concerned, once all eyewitnesses to a moment in time are deceased and no longer available for cross-examination, any history we might thereafter read can be regarded as equal in value to fiction, which is to say that it might well be interesting and edifying to consume, but we should not regard it as true and authoritative in any way that a novel mightn't be. (And don't give me that crap about it being important to study history in order not to repeat the mistakes of our past, when history itself tells us that has never worked before.) At issue is perhaps "truth" itself, which is a larger discussion (is there much of truth to glean even from cross-examining a living witness on a recent event?), but, at the very least, when it comes to pre-20th century history, quite a lot of what most people accept without scrutiny as history probably is fiction, so why not just err on the side of caution and be skeptical about everything?

Take the case of the Brontosaurus, which, I suspect, even today would rank among the top 3 dinosaurs that most people would name when prompted. And yet, it was decades ago that the scientific community determined that "Brontosaurus" was no more than a redundant second name for the Apatosaurus. A recent "All Things Considered" story explained again that the Brontosaurus never existed at all. It became erroneously canonized into public imagination as a result of some highly irresponsible paleontological work that resulted in mismatched dinosaur skulls and skeletons. How much of the rest of what we study as historical truth is actually hacked together from mismatched pieces?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Fear Trap

Remember the D.C. sniper attacks? Even though I lived on the other side of the country, I found it one of the scariest crime stories ever to dominate the news.

It's always disturbing to think that one fellow human being could turn to murdering another fellow human being, but I could think of almost no manner and method of murder more chilling than in those shootings. The killings were random, insofar as the shooters had no prior connections to their victims, and so it was never personal. But, in another way, it was intensely personal because, with that rifle, the sniper would have been zooming in to get a clear view of the victim each time. Contrast this with a bombing, which is no less awful in its end result—murder is murder—but is, in my mind, less psychologically haunting because it is indiscriminate with regard to who or how many get caught in the blast. In the case of the sniper attacks, meanwhile, the shooter had to select a target to focus in on, zoom in for a clear and steady shot, recognize that it was a human being in their crosshairs, and then pull the trigger anyway.

But, for me, the scariest part was that the victims were all people in the middle of the most mundane parts of their daily lives—pumping gas, loading groceries into the trunk of their car, or even just sitting down to catch a breather. These were things that we all do routinely, and, in that sense, the victims could have been any of us. Just the thought was almost more than my mind could bear. It meant that there were no safe places, no safe moments. And it was little comfort when they finally caught the D.C. snipers. Just as the victims could have been anyone, so too could anyone with a sufficiently sick mind and a sniper rifle become the next serial sniper. And, unfortunately, neither sick minds nor sniper rifles are in short enough supply.

For years after that, every time I went to pump gas, I could not help but consider this nightmare scenario that there might have been some concealed sniper waiting to shoot me. Yes, I went through this EVERY SINGLE TIME.

As I see it, gripped with such fear in even the routine aspects of life, there are only a few different ways to proceed. You can yield to terror, never go out, avoid life as much as possible. Taking this course to its logical extreme, basically you can't even get out of bed in the morning, for fear of anything going wrong. (Or perhaps you would be so afraid of dying in your sleep that you would never go to bed in the first place.) And you mustn't form relationships either, in order to spare yourself having to worry about things maybe happening to other people. This is perhaps neither a very appealing nor a very realistic option for most people.

The second option is to simply get over your fear, try not to worry about things that are out of your control, and just hope and trust that there won't be someone waiting to kill you as you go about your day. It takes a small bit of faith and optimism, but most people would probably agree that this is the "normal" way to live. It's also "reasonable," since the odds are surely against your being sniped at the gas station, although I'm sure that statistic was no consolation for the people who were.

There is another way out of the trap, however. You can proceed as though it doesn't matter whether or not the sniper gets you. You can even operate as though there is always a sniper waiting to shoot you, only you don't allow the prospect of being killed to bother you, because you convince yourself that your life doesn't matter to begin with, so neither does dying. But do not mistake this for pessimism, which involves just as much faith as optimism, only in the opposite direction. The point is not that you do believe the sniper is going to get you. Again, the point is that it doesn't matter one way or another whether there is a sniper at all.

You might suppose, if you pursue this course to its natural end, then you need never do anything, because nothing really matters. It's true that you would never need to do anything, but that does not mean that, under this philosophy, you should do nothing. Because doing nothing is also a meaningless choice, no more deserving of "should" than any other choice would be. You could do nothing, or you could just as well do everything. Neither choice is more meaningful than the other.

Perhaps this last path sounds rather like insanity. It doesn't require faith, doesn't require reason, doesn't really require anything. Perhaps you could not truly consider this to be "living," any more than the hiding at home option.

In practice, I think that many of us do operate this way. Not all the time, certainly, but there are definitely plenty of moments in my own life, when I will come to a minor crossroads, and, instead of actively deciding that one or the other is the right path, I merely recognize that the decision is ultimately meaningless. That doesn't mean that I freeze in place and choose neither path. It usually means that I do one thing but could have done another, and it doesn't really matter that I don't do that but do this. This mainly concerns small decisions for me, like whether to eat at Taco Bell or Costco, or whether to watch sports or take a nap. In such cases, whatever decision I arrive at is not meaningful, at least not more so than whatever I didn't choose.

Anyway, there's a killer on the rampage in Southern California. You've probably heard about it in the news, and I don't want to editorialize on this still-developing story. It reminded me of the D.C. sniper attacks, however, and, although it isn't scary to me in the same way (because I don't think I'd be anywhere on this guy's radar), it occurred to me that I hadn't had those gas station sniper fears in a while.

I think it's because my life has lately been busier, and fuller. It's strange, because I always imagined that those who lived more fully had more to lose and, as a result, were more constantly afraid to lose everything. Meanwhile, so I imagined, those who had nothing, or invested nothing in anything they had, wouldn't have to worry much about losing anything. That's kind of the premise behind the third path out of the fear trap–once you determine that nothing, not even your life, is truly, meaningfully yours, you don't worry anymore about losing any of it. And yet, the reality is that, as my life has become busier, I've been too preoccupied with practical concerns to be dreaming up outlandish nightmare scenarios. It's almost as if, contrary to what I had believed, the more time one spends living, the less they spend worrying about dying. Imagine that.

(Or, alternatively, maybe I'm just so over "meaning" by now, and that has freed me up to live in the moment by instinct and sense, rather than by reason and thought. As long as I don't feel dying, death is consequently not a consideration in my moment-to-moment existence.)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

"No Woman, No Cry" by Joan Baez (covering Bob Marley)

Off the Diamonds & Rust in the Bullring live album (1988) (uploaded to YouTube by user Scout4Me1):

I like Bob Marley's version, of course, but, to be honest, I never understood any of the lyrics (I mean that I literally couldn't make out anything he was saying) until I heard this cover by Joan Baez.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Who Remembers Marion Butts?

Fair enough, if there are kids today who are too young to have been football fans when Marion Butts, former NFL running back for the San Diego Chargers (and later the Patriots and Oilers), was playing during the early 90s. But I am shocked and appalled that, even on the Internet—that supposed repository for all information, no matter how useless—there is hardly anything on this two-time Pro Bowl-er. Google his brilliant name (which, as you can imagine, made for some classic sports page headlines back in the day), and you'll find a few NFL reference sites providing his career stats and little else. There has seemingly been more written on one "Lee Marion Butts, Sr.," a deceased Dallas photographer, than on one of the best RBs in Charger history. By the second page, already the majority of search results have nothing to do with our Butts. The very first result, his perfunctory Wikipedia page, didn't even have a picture of him—an oversight I saw fit to correct posthaste (by inserting the only pic I had of him: his 8-bit Tecmo Super Bowl mug shot)*:



* Update: My image has since been taken down by Wikipedia Nazis.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Winter Is Not a Good Time To Be a Fruit

I was invited to a potluck on short notice. Even in the best of circumstances, I do not enjoy potlucks. I cannot cook. At all. And somehow it seems I'm always the only one attending who cannot cook. Maybe I should take a class. Or maybe I should just find people more my own level (read: inept) to hang with, so that I don't always feel so outclassed and embarrassed.

At any rate, having accepted the invitation, and having been given little time to decide on what dish to attempt and how to go about it, I chose to go with a fruit tart. From what I saw on MasterChef last summer, they seemed simple enough to make, and it's the raw fruits that do the heavy lifting with their natural flavors, so there wouldn't be much room for me to screw up. Also, I kind of just wanted one.

Consulting the Internet for guidance, I quickly realized, however, that I had already blundered. As it turns out, winter is not a good time to be a fruit (or a tart), as a lot of the more common fruit tart ingredients (e.g. berries) are not in season. But I had already committed, and I never work with a backup plan. I was just going to have to make do with whatever was in season for my winter tart. Luckily, kiwis seemed to be on most winter lists. Mandarin oranges seemed a good candidate to complement the kiwi, both aesthetically and flavor-wise. So that was two down already, and I figured one more would be enough to round out my tart.

One allegedly hardy fruit that caught my attention was guava. I had previously had guava juice and guava kombucha, and I had enjoyed the distinctive fragrant sweetness. Plus, the impression given to me by those drinks was that it was a deep pink color, which I thought would have worked well alongside the green and orange that I had already picked out.

Alas, for being one of the few fruits that is supposedly good for winter, guava is pretty near impossible to find in grocery stores. I mean, I checked a Sprouts, a Whole Foods, even a FoodLand, and came away empty-handed. I ended up having to grab a pineapple instead. It wasn't yet the best season for pineapple, but the color worked, and I could only hope that the taste would not be too far off the spring ideal.

Later, when I told my mother about my fruitless search for guava, she asked why I didn't simply pick some from her guava tree in the front yard. It was then that it occurred to me I had never actually eaten a guava, nor even seen one that wasn't merely an illustration on a juice carton. When my mother brought out a few, I saw finally that they were never going to be suitable for a fruit tart—too indivisibly messy.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

There Are Penguins in My Swimming Pool

What follows is a story I wrote in 2004 for a class on writing for children. The story was targeted toward early readers, with the idea being that it would more likely be read to a child by their parent or teacher. Were it an actual finished book, it would also have been filled with illustrations, which would have been the real selling point. But I am not an artist, and there are no pictures here, so you must imagine.

Now, without further ado, here is, exactly as submitted nine years ago, quite probably the best thing I ever wrote:

There Are Penguins in My Swimming Pool

"There are penguins in my swimming pool," said Tommy.

"Stop saying that! You know it's not true!" said all the other kids.

Tommy never stopped insisting that his pool was full of penguins, even though none of the other children ever believed him. Most of the kids, in fact, had already taken to ignoring him, but there were a handful still who continued to listen, if for no other reason than to try and prove him wrong.

"They came from Antarctica," Tommy explained. "You see, when it's winter here, it's summer over there. The penguins migrated to my pool because it's too warm right now in Antarctica."

None of the others knew enough about Antarctica to know if Tommy was telling the truth about it being summertime there. Some were willing to take his word for it, because they knew Tommy was smarter when it came to such things. But even if that part was true, the kids still found Tommy's story hard to believe. The doubting persisted.

"How could they migrate from Antarctica?" asked Sarah. "Penguins can't fly."

"I know that!" responded Tommy. "Of course the penguins didn't fly from Antarctica. They swam."

Once again, the others could not be sure whether or not Tommy's explanation was possible. They knew that Antarctica was far away, but they didn't know if it was too far for penguins to swim. And their town was near the beach, so it seemed a likely enough place for weary penguins to stay. After all, the penguins probably wouldn't want to walk very far after swimming all that way.

"But why, out of all the places they could go, would they stay at your pool?" asked Sarah. "I have a pool, and I bet it's just as cold as yours."

"The penguins told me your pool is too small and the water is dirty," Tommy said.

Sarah frowned. She had never seen Tommy's pool to compare, but her own pool wasn't as big or as clean as some others she had seen in magazines.

"Wait a minute!" she said. "Penguins can't talk!"

"How do you know? Have you ever met a penguin?" asked Tommy. "Are you trying to tell me that my penguins can't speak, even though I know I just spoke to them this morning?"

"Prove it!" Sarah demanded. "Let us see these talking penguins in your pool!"

"Sorry," Tommy replied. "My parents don't like me bringing people over. Speaking of which, I have to go home now. My mom won't be happy if I'm late for lunch."

Tommy walked off, and the remaining children went on to discuss other topics. All except for Sarah, who could not put Tommy's story out of her mind.

"It's not fair," she muttered to herself. "I wish I could have talking penguins in my swimming pool."

Yes, that's the whole thing.

Reading it now, it definitely seems too short. At most, I could have gotten six illustrated pages out of it, and even that would have necessitated a couple pictures of just the kids standing around and talking. If I were to revise the piece, I would probably have to add at least four or five descriptions by Tommy of what activities the penguins actually did in his pool. The object would be to get page after page of illustrations of the penguins doing specific things. Alas, I find my imagination no more constructive now than it was nine years ago, as I really cannot think of any specific pool-appropriate examples.

Oddly enough, my professor and classmates at the time provided no feedback whatsoever on the length of the story. My professor instead said simply that the ending was weak, which was fair, even though the ending had been one of the first things I had clearly settled on and felt sure of. I had meant it to be humorously ironic, which is perhaps not what one should go for when writing for young children. As it is, it's just kind of abrupt and inconclusive, leaving the reader unsure how to feel coming away from it.

That said, my professor did give me an A-minus for the story. That was a frustrating class for many of my classmates, I remember, because that professor seemed especially stingy with the A grade. In some of the fiction classes, I suppose, students were awarded A's so long as they fully and thoughtfully fulfilled their assignments. The professors were surely experienced enough to identify immature writing (which would have been most of what they received), but maybe, recognizing that true quality is rare at any level and, moreover, that a work of fiction's worth is often (if not always) a matter of taste, they graded generously for effort in the absence of skill.

Diane D'Andrade, professor of our children's literature class, however, was one of those who asked that we truly earn our A grades. My peers were frustrated because, when they asked her what it took to earn an A, she could only say “a certain je ne sais quoi,” which was really no answer at all. And so we were resigned to understand that getting an A was largely out of our control, as it seemed to depend on our work somehow just striking a chord with the professor for reasons she herself could not articulate.

She was formerly an editor at Harcourt, however, so we trusted that she knew her stuff, even if she could not define it to our satisfaction. Most importantly, she knew what it took to get published. Among some of us students, there even came to be the whispered inference that any work that she judged to have "that certain je ne sais quoi,” if not yet ready for publication, at least had the potential. And, of course, some even went that leap of logic further to reckon that any piece that received an A grade from her was therefore fit to be published.

Looking back at my own grossly unpolished story now, that was clearly a ridiculous notion, and about the only thing I'd say I got out of that class was the inside joke, saying this or that book or movie lacked "that certain je ne sais quoi," any time I want to delicately disparage a work or artist. But, at the time, I suppose that A, even if it was only an A-minus, did please me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

When is Chinese New Year?

When is Chinese New Year?

If you somehow arrived on my blog at the end of a quest to hunt down the answer to this question (though I don't see how that could be possible, since Google itself answers the question directly at the top of its search results), then I'll just get it out of the way now and tell you that Chinese New Year 2013 is Sunday, February 10. Congratulations and prosperity be to you.

* * *

"When's the Lunar New Year?"

I didn't know what that was, and I couldn't think of any reason for anyone to suppose that I would. I never was the go-to guy for scratching anybody's question itches. So, seeing no reason to assume that it was directed at me, I went on doing what I was doing, without stopping to acknowledge that anyone had spoken.

"Henry?" they then added. Apparently they weren't going to let me zone out through this one.

So, with sincere ignorance, I asked back, "Wuzzat—some Mayan thing?"

"Chinese New Year! Aren't you supposed to be Chinese? You should know this."

"Oh, um, we just call it 'New Year's,'" I scrambled to explain. "I didn't understand what you meant with the 'Lunar.'"

"I didn't want to say 'Chinese New Year,' because I don't know if it's politically correct. I didn't want to sound racist."

"Yes, well, good effort, anyway."

Yes, how mighty decent of you to not want to sound racist as you assume that the one Chinese guy in the building would have to know when Chinese New Year is. I bet you never considered asking Ms. Jones right next to you, did you? Even though she's just as likely or unlikely to know the answer.

"Just tell me, is it this weekend or the one after?" they asked.

"Oh, I have no idea. I didn't even know it was coming up."

"You don't know when your new year is? What kind of Chinese are you? You don't know anything?"

"I know that Wednesday is SVU, Thursday is Vampire Diaries, 'Friday I'm in Love.' But Chinese New Year? No idea. Don't know, don't care."

"It's this weekend," Ms. Jones then chipped in with the correct answer.

See? Now I hope we all learned something from this.

* * *

Sorry, but I don't have a clue what the dates are for Chinese New Year 2014 and on. I'd advise you to just Google it when it gets closer to the holiday—around the beginning of February.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Day Iron Man Packed It In

From ABC News ("Postal Worker Retires After 44 Years Without Sick Day," January 29, 2013):
On Jan. 31, Deborah Ford will retire from the U.S. Postal Service after 44 years without using any of her sick days.

Though her colleagues and the local media, including the Detroit Free Press, applaud her level of commitment, Ford, 64, doesn’t see what the big deal is.

Born and raised in Detroit, Ford will be retiring from her job in payroll and timekeeping management for the city’s main post office.

“I was trying to do the best I could, and that just evolved into working all my scheduled days,” Ford said.

Ford said when she was sick, she would simply “shake it off.” For appointments, say, with the doctor, she would use vacation days. [...]

“It’s just part of our work ethic,” she said.

This lady sounds rather like my least favorite person in the workplace: that coworker who insists on coming in even though they've caught the common cold, actually pats themselves on the back for their fight-through-the-pain work ethic, then gets everyone else sick and consequently disrupts overall company productivity far more than they would have had they simply excused themselves from work for a few sick days. Well, maybe not. From the article, it does sound like her colleagues appreciated her. Maybe she worked a job that didn't require her to be in close contact with other employees, or to handle items that would then be handled by others. Or maybe she just took excellent care of herself.

I'll admit, as much as I do not appreciate coworkers getting me sick, I myself, as a younger man, used to take some amount of pride in my own attendance record. Not to brag–I mean, I wasn't perfect–but I did use to receive annual commendations for superior attendance. These public accolades would so stoke my ego that I would even occasionally try to work through concealed illnesses in order to maintain my record. No, I wasn't exactly singled out for these awards, but, well, let's just say not everybody got one. Yeah . . . . Impressed yet? Ahem, anyway, that was nothing compared to a colleague of mine, who was singled out every year for his attendance record.

I was considered to have good attendance basically because I never took personal days. Like most people, I might take a sick day or two per year for legitimate illness. But this buddy of mine, John, actually did achieve perfect attendance–no sick days, no personal days, no vacation days, and never tardy. And he didn't just do this one year; he did it year after year for six years in a row.

That first year, I had not yet met him, but when I watched him receive his special certificate at the annual awards ceremony, I made a note of the name. I thought I was tough, but to not miss a single day? Hardcore. I set a target on his back. Clearly, there was still room for me to step up my game, and next year, I resolved, that award would be mine.

Alas, even fighting as hard as I could to work through my yearly cold, I was ultimately unable to make it through the year without my body breaking down on me at least once. Neither was anybody else, except for John. Once again, John stood alone, and, this time, I truly respected the accomplishment and admired the man. To do it once was more than I could handle. John, meanwhile, did it twice, and in consecutive years, no less! He was the better man; I could not deny it. I humbly joined his cheering section, as his streak grew exponentially more impressive with each successive year, to the point of legendary.

Then came the sixth grade.

From kindergarten through the fifth grade, "Iron Man" John's attendance had been impeccable, immaculate. Then, one day—an unremarkable day, like any other, except for one vital difference—class began, the teacher went through the roll sheet, and, when it came to John (coincidentally, because of his last name, John was always last on the roll in every class), rather than his reliable response of "Here" or "Present," there was nothing. In fact, John, normally seated at the same table as me, was not present. The vacuum did not go unnoticed. Fearful, uncomprehending whispers spread across the room—"Tardy? John? No way!"—and even the teacher appeared at a loss. For "Iron Man" John, whose very identity (as far as I was concerned) resided in his perfect attendance, to be late to class, it must have been something serious. Like, maybe his ride was involved in a collision? Or he was struck by a car while walking/biking to school? Or . . . well, whatever the reason, it had to have been something serious. But what could any of us do, except wait for him to arrive? Wait and pray.

John never showed up to class that day. Or the next day. He did show up the day after that, and he provided a shockingly banal explanation for his absence: he had been sick. It hadn't even been a serious, life-threatening illness. As I recall, it was just a cold, or, at worst, the flu.

He also missed several more days over the course of the rest of the school year. In fact, it seemed to me that he was absent more often than any other student in the class. He had gone from a perfect attendance record to possibly setting a record for spottiest attendance. It was like he was making up for lost time. Or . . . making up for . . . time that wasn't lost but should have been? And what bugged me most about it was that, after that first day, nobody really seemed to care. "Iron Man" was no more; he had packed it in, given up the ghost, let go of the rope, and, when the moment had come, it had come with less than a whimper. When the annual awards ceremony came around, I thought maybe he would get a "Special Achievement" award, maybe be invited to give a few words as a capstone to his magnificent run. But nobody mentioned it, and he hadn't merited the regular good attendance award for that year, so he ended up just a spectator. His story didn't even make the classroom newspaper.

I remember thinking, at the time, that it seemed to matter more to me than to John, and maybe that had always been the case. In the end, I can't speak for John. I have no idea what was going through his head at any point during or after the streak. Speaking for myself, I'm long past being impressed by any "office Cal Ripkens." We're given sick days for a reason. Use 'em, or else, if you come in and get me sick, I will send you to the hospital the hard way!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Conan O'Brien says Xbox 360 is best game console

From Conan (January 30, 2013): "US Citizenship Test: Anderson Cooper 360 Edition"

In case the video goes down, or if you're not at leisure to listen to the audio, this is a recurring bit, wherein Conan answers questions from the U.S. naturalization test on air.

Immigrants are normally required to pass the test, covering English and civics, in order to become citizens of the United States. Every once in a while, some politician will propose that passing the test should also be required as part of the voter registration process, in order to ensure that voters have at least a bare minimum understanding of how America's government works, before they start casting votes that would affect how the country is run. The reality, however, is that we are such a politically agnostic society overall that, if quizzed on civics, the average American on the street would likely stand no chance whatsoever.

Rather than actually quizzing people on the street to show just how unqualified they are to vote (since that's already a bit on another show), Conan, on this recurring sketch, instead volunteers himself, with mock American bravado, to take a version of the test, which actually turns out to be mostly a series of joke questions focusing on the sorts of dumb information that more accurately reflect the average American's low-minded concerns and knowledge.

From the most recent installment, here's the titular joke:
Question: What's the best game console?

Conan: Xbox 360.

Question: And what's the worst?

Conan: The Anderson Cooper 360.

If you didn't get that punchline, Anderson Cooper 360° is the title of popular broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper's television news show on CNN. But don't worry; I don't think most people know what that is. What's funnier by far (and also depressing) is the reaction Conan got, probably unintentionally, with the first part of the joke—the setup.

Up to that point, the audience had laughingly applauded every joke answer Conan had given. But when he, without hesitation, answered that the Xbox 360 was the best game console, there was, instead of laughter, only a hushed murmur (well, and one guy offering a "Woo!"), as though Conan had said something terribly controversial, and people were perturbed and uneasy about sticking their own necks out to applaud, lest they be perceived as taking any kind of position on his position. Yes, of all questions, this—the video game question (which, as it turned out, was just the setup to a well-received zinger at Anderson Cooper's expense)—was the one that proved a little too real for the live audience.

The rule of thumb to be generally observed, when you're in polite society and not interested in getting into a debate, is to stay off any topics that would have the potential to agitate, namely politics and religion (and I would usually add team sports to that list). On Conan, however, politics is regularly fodder for his monologue, and he's not afraid to poke fun at religious fundamentalism either, always to the audience's delight. But here we see that there is one topic that is perhaps even more sensitive: the console war.

Even ignoring the fact (since I'm not convinced the writers actually put that much thought into it) that, given the theme of the segment, the Microsoft Xbox 360 is the properly patriotic answer (Sony and Nintendo both being Japanese), Conan has made it pretty clear already, with his "Clueless Gamer" segment, that he doesn't really play, like, or know much about video games, so we can safely assume that he doesn't mean it when he says the 360 is the best. But it doesn't really matter whether he means it or not; the audience's conditioned reflexive unease at his words has been nakedly captured on film.

We are now at the point in the life of this debate when, whether we have a position ourselves, we are, most of us, not actively engaged in the console war, but rather try to steer clear of it altogether, because we've seen how ugly it can get—seriously, random guys at GameStop will fight you over your game console preference—and it's simply not safe to take a stand either way. It's the same kind of nervousness that usually accompanies workplace talk of politics or religion, only, I dare say, people these days are even more passionate (and, therefore, protective) about their positions on video games than about their political or religious affiliations. In fact, having been among folks who are highly politically active, as well as folks who are deeply religious (and that's two different groups I'm talking about), I can say that, out of all the circles I've personally observed, no other is as defensive, and militantly so, as the hardcore video game enthusiasts.

This is why, as often as politicians and the mainstream media try to come after video games and scapegoat it for everything wrong with this country, I really do not see them ever prevailing. I don't know why exactly, nor whether it's a good thing, but, fact is, nobody riles up and rallies for its interests harder than the gaming community.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

TV Line of the Week Ending February 2, 2013

From Supernatural - Season 8, Episode 12 ("As Time Goes By"):
Mysterious stranger: I'm from Normal, Illinois. 1958.

Dean Winchester: Yeah, right! (realizing that the guy is not kidding) Seriously? Dudes time traveling through motel room closets—that's what we've come to?

No kidding, Dean.

Friday, February 1, 2013


If you didn't see it when it played before Wreck-It Ralph in theaters, Disney has posted up its Academy Award-nominated short, Paperman, on YouTube:

Many have praised its blending of hand-drawn and computer-generated animation techniques, and I agree it's probably the best thing Disney Animation has done in a long while (and I actually like their recent films). Not sure I agree, however, with any glib appraisals that there is any personality on display that absolutely could not have been achieved with CG characters. The short is, for me, refreshingly a triumph not on account of its technical innovations so much as because, unlike the overwhelming majority of animation in theaters, it doesn't seem geared primarily toward children. (I actually had to resist the urge to title this post "This ain't no Paperboy.")

In this wordless short, also worth mentioning is the uplifting musical score by former Buffy and Angel composer Christophe Beck.

But did anyone else experience flashbacks to Terry Gilliam's Brazil? If so, how unfortunate.